Led Zeppelin: Faltering first steps on the stairway to heaven

It nearly didn't happen. How Robert Plant almost joined Slade, and Jimmy Page aimed to be a biologist
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The Independent Culture

To look at him now, you would not think that young James Page's ambition in life was to enter "biological research", yet that was the startling admission this only child made in 1958 on the TV talent show All Your Own. Eight years later, there was another glimpse of Page in Michelangelo Antonioni's homage to swinging London, Blowup, when The Yardbirds enjoyed a cameo performing at a club populated by peculiarly immobile scenesters.

Page himself was established as a full-time jobbing guitarist by the mid-Sixties. He sat in on sessions with The Who, The Kinks and the Rolling Stones, while also playing lead guitar on Tom Jones's "It's Not Unusual".

Another musician involved with Jones's recordings was John Paul Jones, at the time one of the most sought after keyboardists around. Known as the quiet man of Zep, Jones had all the requisite characteristics to make it on the session circuit: stay reliable, make suggestions with diplomatic circumspection and never, ever overshadow the main players. The name that caught everyone's attention, though, had been made up for him by Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham.

Born in Kent, John Baldwin was taught keyboards by his father Joe, who was a pianist and arranger for big bands in the Forties and Fifties. His mother was also in the music business, which meant Jones's parents travelled around. Their son was packed off to a London boarding school, and at 14 he became choirmaster at a local church. Yet classical and religious music were not his only influences. Jones appreciated jazz, particularly Charlie Mingus and Phil Upchurch, who inspired him to take up bass.

His first major break came when he hooked up with the Shadows rejects Jet Harris and Tony Meehan, who went on to score a number one hit with "Diamonds" in 1963. Page played rhythm guitar on that track, making it his and Jones's first recording together. Jones became established when Meehan recommended him to Decca Records. Soon he was arranging chart smashes for some of the biggest names in pop. He arranged music for Herman's Hermits and worked in Lulu's band for two years. One of his most successful relationships, though, was with folk star Donovan, for whom he was musical director on "Hurdy Gurdy Man", the No2 hit "Sunshine Superman", and "Mellow Yellow". For the Rolling Stones, Jones was instrumental in the sound of 1967 album Their Satanic Majesties Request, notably the string arrangement for "She's a Rainbow".

By this time, Page was established in one of Britain's most respected bands. Combining traditional blues with a more pop-orientated R&B sound, The Yardbirds had established Eric Clapton as a star before Jeff Beck took over. Page turned down the role when Clapton left, unable to give up his lucrative session work, but later joined as bassist until rhythm guitarist Chris Dreja could take up that instrument and the new guy could be promoted to lead guitarist alongside Beck. The group were already established as one of the UK's most progressive units, but were beginning to run out of creative steam. Frustratingly, this line-up released only one psychedelic single, "Happenings Ten Years Time Ago", with Jones on bass, one of several meetings between him and Page during the latter half of the decade.

Also out of this period came "Beck's Bolero", the piece, inspired by Ravel and credited to Page (though his co-guitarist also claims ownership), that eventually emerged as the B-side to Beck's first solo single "Hi Ho Silver Lining". Another rare recording was "Stroll On", a last-minute inclusion in Blowup. Beck gamely trashed a guitar, as requested, in homage to Pete Townshend, yet the band was starting to unravel and he left during a fractious American tour.

Beset by drug abuse and commercial flops, the band came under record label pressure to provide more hits. No wonder that Page's later band refused to release any singles. He was developing an interest in the post-Dylan folk revival, especially the virtuoso musicianship of Bert Jansch and Davy Graham. Page showcased his own finger picking skills on "White Summer", inspired by the latter's radical rereading of the folk standard "She Moved Through the Fair" with its distinctive Moroccan tuning, an early example of Page's taste for the exotic. He also brought out a violin bow on an early "Dazed and Confused", and which became such a staple of their live shows after it was remade on Led Zep's debut album.

Jones was drafted in to help with their final studio album, Little Games. In 1967, the band toured the US once more, this time in the company of their new manager, the larger-than-life Peter Grant. On stage, the band remained a formidable force, as heard on the album Live Yardbirds: Featuring Jimmy Page (released by Epic in 1971 to cash in on Zeppelin's success and withdrawn after Page filed an injunction). Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the group argued over their creative direction. The singer Keith Relf and drummer Jim McCarty preferred a folk direction, while Page wanted a heavier sound. After the group's final gig in July 1968 at Luton Technical College, Page needed to form a new group to meet Scandinavian tour commitments. Jones remained in demand for session work, without the creative freedom he yearned for. When he heard that Page was recruiting members for what would be The New Yardbirds, he got in touch.

Page's first choice for singer was the white soul-boy Terry Reid, who had to decline the offer as he was signed to a solo career with Mickie Most. Instead, Reid put him in touch with the frontman of a group that had supported him in the Midlands. The band was Hobbstweedle and the vocalist Robert Plant. Born and raised in the Black Country, Plant's first love was the blues, much of which was being rediscovered in the early Sixties, notably the primitive recordings of Robert Johnson. Plant had abandoned accountancy training after two weeks to pursue music and appeared in a series of local bands.

Fellow band-members attest to the fact that he was already a hit with the opposite sex. "The girls were just fascinated and the boys were too in a different way," the bassist Paul Lockey says.

Slade's Noddy Holder was a roadie for Plant's Band of Joy, who broke up in May 1968. Holder went on to co-form Slade, who had rejected Plant as singer because of his flamboyant posing. When Page and Jones approached Plant to join their new band, the singer immediately suggested a suitable candidate to sit behind the drums. He had performed with John "Bonzo" Bonham early on in The Crawling King Snakes.

The son of a builder, Bonham learnt to play the drums when he was five, making a kit out of boxes and tins to copy his inspirations, the flamboyant big band drummer Gene Krupa and jazz virtuoso Buddy Rich. Self-taught, Bonham would visit local drummers at their homes to ask for advice. After school, he worked for his father on construction sites and joined various local outfits. A contemporary on the local scene, Ed Pilling, remembers that Bonham soon earned a reputation as the loudest drummer in the area and was the first to line his bass drum with aluminium to give it an explosive, cannon-like sound. "Several other groups told me certain clubs wouldn't book bands in which John Bonham played drums, because he was just too loud." Nevertheless, the upcoming singer Joe Cocker and the established Chris Farlowe came looking for the high-volume drummer.

But Page and his manager had also seen him in action. Forty-odd telegrams to the Three Men In A Boat pub, Walsall, secured his services.